Is Heroin An Opioid?

Medically Reviewed by Johnelle Smith, M.D on July 13, 2021

Heroin is an illegal opioid drug with powerful effects. Unlike prescription opioids, all heroin is illegal to use in the United States. Heroin is chemically similar to morphine and prescription opioids like oxycodone.

Is Heroin An Opioid?

Heroin is an illegal drug that comes from the opium poppy plant. It belongs to a class of drugs known as opioids, also known as opiates. When misused, these drugs can be addictive.

Heroin has played a deadly role in the United States’ opioid crisis.

In 2017, the opioid epidemic was officially declared a public health emergency by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Heroin use can cause a range of physical, mental, and psychological effects. It is very addictive and can be deadly when used by itself or with other drugs.

Read more about frequently asked questions about heroin abuse

What Are Opioids?

Opioids are a class of drugs that include illicit drugs like heroin, as well as legal opioids prescribed to treat severe and chronic pain.

When taken, these drugs can affect mood, sense of pain, behavior, and breathing rate.

Opioid drugs can be classified as:

  • natural opiates
  • synthetic opioids
  • semi-synthetic opioids

Opioid drugs, also referred to as painkillers or narcotics, can be addictive when taken in any way other than prescribed.

Prescription Opioids

Heroin is not a prescription drug. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) classifies heroin as a drug with no acceptable use in the United States.

Common prescription opioids include:

  • morphine
  • oxycodone (OxyContin)
  • hydrocodone (Vicodin)
  • hydromorphone
  • oxymorphone
  • codeine
  • tramadol

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Illicit Opioids

Heroin is an illicit opioid. Illicit opioids are drugs that are illegally manufactured and distributed.

Fentanyl, a fully synthetic opioid, can also be illegally manufactured. Compared to heroin, fentanyl is much more potent and can be deadlier in small doses.

What Do Opioids Do?

Opioids are central nervous system depressants that interact with neurotransmitters like dopamine, a “feel good” brain chemical.

When taken, powerful opioids like heroin can depress the central nervous system and cause an intense rush of happiness and relaxation.

Opioids can also have the following side effects:

  • drowsiness
  • reduced heart rate
  • decreased blood pressure
  • slow breathing
  • nausea
  • constipation
  • itchiness

People who take opioids for more than a few weeks can develop physical dependence. This can cause withdrawal symptoms within hours of your last dose.

Dangers Of Opioid Use

Heroin, like other opioids, can be life-threatening when taken in large quantities or mixed with other drugs, including alcohol.

Opioid Overdose

Overdose is a primary concern with heroin use. Heroin is involved in tens of thousands of drug overdose deaths in the United States each year.

If someone is showing signs of an opioid overdose, administering the drug naloxone (Narcan) can be life-saving. This can block the effects of heroin in the brain and reverse an overdose.

Health Risks Of Opioid Use Disorder

Chronic heroin use and addiction is associated with the following health risks:

  • infectious diseases (e.g. hepatitis)
  • kidney and liver disease
  • respiratory distress
  • brain damage
  • mood disorders

Opioid abuse can affect mental health, physical health, and hurt relationships. Seeking substance abuse treatment can be life-saving.

Treatment For Heroin And Opioid Addiction

Recovering from heroin addiction is possible with effective medical and behavioral treatment.

Treatment for heroin addiction may involve:

  • detoxification
  • medication assisted treatment (e.g. methadone, buprenorphine, naltrexone)
  • behavioral therapy
  • wraparound social services

Treatment for heroin addiction can be received through a rehab center or an outpatient substance abuse treatment provider.

If you or a loved one is using heroin, it’s never too soon to seek help. Call our helpline today to find heroin addiction treatment near you.

This page does not provide medical advice. See more

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Medically Reviewed by
Johnelle Smith, M.D on July 13, 2021
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